According to a Gallup poll, just 32% of employees across the U.S. were actively satisfied and engaged at work in 2015. Approximately 50% were disengaged, and worse, almost 18% were “actively disengaged.”
What’s going on here?
Do you know the engagement level of employees at your company? A lot of us like to think our numbers are better, and you may be right. But it’s a reality that employee engagement — the ability to capture the hearts and minds and get people’s discretionary effort — is a game-changer. And it’s important to know what decreases employee engagement.
You’re probably familiar with the manager or director who keeps coming to you for advice. It’s like they’re never quite confident enough to handle something on their own. Or the loyal workhorse who attempts to outwork problems because that always worked in the past. Or the rescuer who dives on the grenades to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen in the first place. Or the executive who says the right things and may have great ideas, but can’t get action from his people. Or the director who gets so tied up in operational rules and road maps that she can’t let her team go above and beyond. Or the notorious micromanager.
Seventy percent of team-level engagement is based on the manager’s ability to lead. If the boss isn’t a strong leader, employees are going to check out. One reason the TV show “The Office” became such a hit is that it was close to home — many modern work environments have become mockingly mediocre. At the center of this: a well-intentioned, floundering executive.
As Google learned in its internal research, the primary pitfall of managers is that strong individual contributors get promoted into leadership roles for which they don’t have the requisite skills. From my perspective, having worked with managers across industries, most struggling managers don’t know how to be exceptional leaders. They’ve never learned, and they may not be getting the right feedback to develop those skills. They’re getting in their own way because they don’t know any other way.
Great teams respond to great leaders. When an executive, manager or director exhibits strong leadership, engagement improves. The way to engage your people is to develop your managers so they have a new and better way to lead.
Here’s something I see again and again in my executive coaching work: Deep down, a whole lot of managers, directors and even executives aren’t sure they’ve got what it takes to be a leader. While they may be hesitant to admit it, there’s often a quiet voice in their head saying, “It would be easier to do this myself,” or “I feel like an imposter. I hope no one find out,” or sometimes wondering, “How did I even get into this position?”
There’s a belief that some people are born to be leaders and others aren’t. But think about it — the “born leader” is usually a hero type, the one who does everything better than the rest and saves the day. The charismatic, individual contributor who comes to mind often rescues and dependably does the work themselves.
Workplace challenges, however, are far more complex than any one person can handle, no matter how heroic. The idea of the leader who leads with little more than a natural charisma and an intense work ethic simply doesn’t fit with the needs of a scaling organization.
What kind of leader do these organizations really need now?
In our current, evolving business climate, the ability to manage change is a key indicator of an organization’s ability to engage employees. Today, we need innovation, inspiration, adaptability and ingenuity to manage this change. We need creativity and the ability to think big. We need cross-functional collaboration. We need feedback. We need openness, and we need experimentation. We need leaders who make people feel safe, who are self-reflective and who have emotional intelligence.
The pace of innovation and disruption is accelerating. That means that leadership for the 21st century looks different than it has in the past. Those who excel are those who work well with others inside of great uncertainty — and who develop the leadership skills of others, as well. They see multiple perspectives, and can use these expansive points of view to find solutions to problems that we’ve never seen before.
For the managers and directors who do their jobs but lack the skills to lead others around them, there’s good news in this. These are leadership skills that most of us have to learn — but we have to acknowledge the fact that, with willingness to learn, anyone can be a better leader. You have to trust and invest in the idea that leadership can be learned.
How do you develop leadership throughout a culture? How do you build a culture of leadership where the values of the company are exhibited in day-to-day interactions? By asking these kinds of questions, you’re getting closer. Knowing that leadership can be learned, a well-developed and well-executed leadership development process is imperative to building a culture of leadership.
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David Butlein, Ph.D., is CEO of BLUECASE Strategic Partners, a leadership development, strategic planning, coaching consultancy in Austin.